Amid a storm of bad news from the Middle East these days (see our conference transcript on the plight of the Syrian refugees, page one) has come a ray of hope. After four decades of sporadic effort, talks aimed at preventing Iran from building an atomic bomb in secret may bear fruit. The details that have been made public are somewhat encouraging, though final approval and the lifting of sanctions have to await more details and the signatures of the two heads of state and a nod from the U.S. Congress. President Obama has made his case in The New York Times, among other places, and polls indicate that a solid majority of the American public are convinced.
This agreement, if it comes into force, may make the world safer. The threat of a nuclear holocaust that has stalked the world since 1945, over three generations, will become a bit more remote. Not that this step will usher in the millennium (see Ellis and Futter, p. 80). And Prime Minister Netanyahu has already admitted he was overdrawing the danger: it is not the bomb in the hands of mullahs that he dreads; it is Iran's return to respectability. Who knew? Not long ago, an American journalist with insider credentials, Jeffrey Goldberg, was predicting that Israel would assume the major risk of trying to "take out" an Iranian nuclear facility — alone, if need be. Never mind. The mushroom cloud was the argument everyone could agree on, as Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz said after the 2003 assault on Iraq about the claim that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. It was the official reason a preventive war of aggression was permissible.
Our side is always allowed exceptions to rules. That America is exceptional is not even questioned as an emotional construct, thanks partly to the horrors of 9/11. We have suffered, so we are permitted to do certain things now. Israel is also afflicted by this syndrome, as the military human-rights group "Breaking the Silence" has recently revealed. In the Gaza slaughterhouse of last summer, the rules of "engagement," in a reinterpretation of international law, allowed killing anyone in the area — unless engaging the "enemy" would have endangered an Israeli soldier. According to a Combat Intelligence Corps sergeant,
In the end, despite the high number of civilian casualties, the debriefings treated the destruction as an accomplishment that would discourage Hamas in the future. You could say they went over most of the things viewed as accomplishments. They spoke about numbers: 2000 dead and 11,000 wounded, half a million refugees, decades-worth of destruction. Harm to lots of senior Hamas members and to their homes, to their families. These were stated as accomplishments so that no one would doubt that what we did during this period was meaningful.
They spoke of a five-year period of quiet (in which there would be no hostilities between Israel and Hamas), when in fact it was a 72-hour ceasefire.
The inhabitants of Gaza, refugees since 1948, have nowhere to run. They are a forgotten people, existing thanks to international relief programs, but with no possibility of what we would consider "life" (see Sara Roy, p. 15, on this calamity and how to prevent the Syrian refugees from falling into a similar abyss). The shame of it should be felt acutely by Americans, since we virtually pay Israel to carry out their periodic lawn mowing. On the contrary, however, the parade of political officials showering Israel's right-wing prime minister and his government with support would indicate no twinge of remorse. At least Pope Francis has recognized the state of Palestine.
There seems to be little appetite now for trying to change the Syrian regime through war; such an attempt would create even more refugees, as well as American casualties, though most U.S. allies agree with President Obama that Assad must go as part of a negotiated end to the conflict. Even former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, an outspoken hawk, sounded a bit chastened in an NPR interview on May 9. In fairness, there are so many contradictions involved in U.S. policy toward the antagonists — the Assad regime, al-Nusra/al-Qaeda and ISIS — it is no wonder coherent thought breaks down. The horrors of a new war, this time in Yemen, may have provided a dose of caution. Aerial attacks do not prompt people to cry uncle and come out with their hands up. They usually circle the wagons. All these conflicts will have to be negotiated eventually; no "win" is possible, at least without ground troops (and not even then, if Iraq is any indicator). The impoverished states that have been asked to provide some have declined.
The chaos in the region is to a very great extent due to American hubris following the end of the Cold War and our status as the last superpower standing. Paul Wolfowitz has been quoted as saying at the time, "now the Russians can't stop us," that is, from correcting the regional template. Iraq, hollowed out by a decade of sanctions, was selected to be first on the list. "Real men" were said at the time to want to fight Iran instead, the idea of making peace with the mullahs being anathema. The chaos led to the revolts we naively labeled the Arab Spring. As CIA analyst Michael Morrell reveals in his new book The Great War of Our Time, it was thought that the revolts would hamper extremists like al-Qaeda, "undermining the group's narrative." This oversimplification indicates that the Agency did not fully understand the "spring" or the rise of ISIS.
No one at the newspaper of record has called the CIA to account for being unable to predict the future. However, FOX News pundit Laura Ingraham has just busted presidential candidate Jeb Bush for understanding little about the past. He claimed that, knowing what he knows now, he would still make the decision his brother did in 2003 and invade Iraq. He clawed the faux pas back as best he could, but his road to the nomination just got longer.